Military planners offer 3,000 troops to fight alongside UK, US

(10 January 2003) -- Canadian Forces planners are "putting everything on the table" for a contribution to any war in Iraq, military sources say, including a brigade group of up to 3,000 mechanized infantry, armour and artillery troops that would fight alongside US and British soldiers.

One source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the navy, air force and army are pushing to make the maximum effort possible despite well-publicized shortages of equipment, funding and personnel.

"Everything they could possibly send to Iraq, they will ... if the government gives the go-ahead," said the source.

But some observers say the military's contingency plans to send everything from CF-18 fighters to a large formation of ground troops to Iraq are being stymied by the Prime Minister's Office and the Department of Foreign Affairs, which object to Canadians becoming involved in combat.

"The government is not terribly happy with the idea of fighting a war," said Colonel Alain Pellerin, a retired army officer and executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations. "That goes against their idea of what our image should be -- that we're peacekeepers; we don't fight wars.

"The PMO and [Privy Council Office] have been particularly hard line about that."

However Col. Pellerin said those objections may not stand up to pressure from Washington.

"The bottom line is the Americans expect something from Canada," he said. "And they would like to have them contribute to land operations."

The Canadian Forces has, for the past few months, been making extensive plans in anticipation of a possible war in Iraq, and one senior defence planner said the army has indicated it could send an entire brigade group to the conflict.

"The feeling among the army is that this is their last chance to show the country what they can do."

A brigade group is about 3,000 soldiers, built around an armoured battalion and one or more mechanized infantry battalions. The source said the infantry would be drawn from the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, in Gagetown, N.B.

The plan would draw the armour -- including squadrons of Coyote armoured reconnaissance vehicles and C-2 Leopard tanks -- from the Royal Canadian Dragoons, based in Petawawa, Ont.

The 3rd Battalion of the RCR, the regiment's light infantry battalion, is another possibility for deployment with the brigade group. That battalion is the army's designated "rapid reaction unit."

Another military source said the Canadian Forces' joint operations group, the central co-ordination unit for major operations, has already sent a small reconnaissance group to the Gulf to check out possible sites for a Canadian headquarters in the region.

The source said one plan under consideration would see a Canadian battalion of about 1,000 soldiers joining allied forces arrayed against Iraq as a "first wave," along with a headquarters for the full brigade group. Other battalions and smaller units such as engineers, artillery and support elements could be added as they arrive.

"That's the template they used in Kosovo and as far back as Korea," the source said. "One battalion became the nucleus of the Commonwealth Brigade."

An air force officer, who also asked not to be named, indicated that a squadron of CF-18s has been offered for any fight in Iraq. Although the jets are in the process of a badly needed upgrade to their airborne electronics, the source said the military hopes a small number will be ready in time to allow them to operate with British and US forces.

The air force has also been replenishing its supply of "smart" bombs, almost all of which were used during the bombing campaign over Kosovo.

Heather Brunner, a spokeswoman for the Department of National Defence, said Canadian military planners are already involved in discussions with the Americans.

"There is a small military liaison team engaged in discussions with the US military authorities right now," she said. "[They're] looking at determining the needs and appropriate contributions should the use of force become necessary."

However, Ms. Brunner said all the plans being laid are still hypothetical. "It's not appropriate to speculate at this time what our specific contribution might be."

John McCallum, the Defence Minister, has said that at minimum, two navy frigates, transport planes and two surveillance aircraft now patrolling the Persian Gulf region in the war on terrorism could be transferred to operations against Iraq.

The commandos of JTF-2, who were withdrawn from Afghanistan late last year for a rest, could also be easily and quickly transferred to an allied force in Iraq.

Col. Pellerin said the proposal to send a large body of Canadian ground troops to Iraq is possible, but said time is not on the defence planners' side.

"They would have to commit themselves now or very soon," he said. "They would have to make an announcement like the Brits or the French did this week that they feel it's prudent to begin real preparations."

cwattie@nationalpost.com Copyright 2003 National Post


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